INTROITUS: 1st Sunday of Advent

Ad te levavi animam meam: Deus meus in te confido, non erubescam: neque irrideant me inimici mei: etenim universi qui t(e) exspectant, non confundentur..

“To you, Lord, I lift up my soul. My God, in you I trust, I will not blush (be ashamed, be disgraced), nor will my enemies ridicule me, for all those who await you will not be embarrassed.” (Ps 25(24):1–3)

Click here to listen to an audio of the chant sung by Br. Jacob Berns, OSB, of St. John’s Abbey.

A wonderful and very famous introit antiphon. Unlike Eastern traditions, Western Christianity lets the liturgical year begin with the 1st Sunday of Advent, hence Ad the levavi is the first chant on the first page of medieval manuscripts, and the Graduale Novum edition has the first notes of Ad the levavi as a golden imprint on its front cover. The long move from Ad te upwards to Deus meus is a marvelous expression of prayer, hope, and trust.

Ad te levavi shows suprisingly many differences between the neumes from St. Gall (below the modern notes, late 10th century) and the neumes from Laon (above the modern notes, around 930). Other pieces have way less differences. Just one example that you can understand even when you do not know much about neumes. Have a look at Deus in the first line: St. Gall writes a single note on the first syllable, and two single notes on the second syllable, both marked with a little bar at the upper end, the episem (literally “sign at the edge”). The invention of the episem is easy to understand: The writer of the neumes sang while he wrote the manuscript, and whenever he dilated a note that he sang, some ink spilled into the parchment at the end of the virga, the sign upwards from left to right that is used for a single note. We can often identify such spots in the manuscripts. So the writer made this a rule: Whenever he explicitely wanted to make clear that a note is supposed to be dilated, he added the episem. Although the stressed syllable of Deus is the first one, the second syllabe gets a very careful expression, and such the entire word is marked as an important one. (A similar idea follows at meus.)

Nevertheless the modern melody shows an additional note, so that Deus does not only have four notes like in St. Gall, but five. The reason can be found in the upper manuscript from Laon that shows two notes upwards where St. Gall only has one single note. Modern research has shown that the majority of the oldest manuscripts has this additional note, hence the Graduale Novum added it too. But this additional deeper note is very light and unaccented—so light that it was completely ommitted in several places in the 10th century.

Beside the wonderful first line, I have two other parts of Ad te levavi that I like the most: inimici mei lets me imagine dangerous enemies that arise in front of me like a dangerous threat—and then shrink immediately, like when I wake up from a nightmare and realize that it was nothing but a bad dream.

Finally there is the end: non confundentur. The melody becomes light, playful, lively. Advent brings us into the tension of “yet” and “not yet”. Ad te levavi lets us experience both, but the “yet” has the final say: Here and now we can be grateful and live in trust and liberty.

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